in Frieze | 11 NOV 01
Featured in
Issue 63

My life in Pictures

New Romanticism meets fashion

in Frieze | 11 NOV 01

If Spandau Ballet had been a high fashion boutique instead of a band, it might have been Plage Tahiti. New Romanticism galore, lots of paisley and lots of frills, high-waisted trousers and ruffles - think Crolla, or the American version of something like Crolla. (Do you remember Crolla?) There were New Wave erotics and nostalgic flourishes (Bakelite jewellery); elaborate asymmetrical hairdos dominated. The summer I was 16 and allowed to drive, allowed to journey to the Big City by myself, New Romantics reigned at Plage Tahiti.

The shop carried no men's clothes. This wasn't really a problem since what I was in search of (although I couldn't yet articulate it) was something that circulated in the atmosphere of fashion rather than the actual clothes. I had been weaned on looking at clothes, paying attention to fashion's meteorology: Vogue magazine and the huge Vogue pattern books were family bibles. The men in my family earned an income from fashion-related businesses (buttons, zips, textiles); my mother and her mother sewed their own clothes with the aplomb of Saks Fifth Avenue seamstresses. There was nothing funny - 'finky' was the word my father used, although I'm still not sure exactly what it denoted - about a man interested in fashion; my grandfathers and my father all followed WWD and DNR, the Fairchild trade papers of the rag business, and would diligently leaf through Vogue and GQ as well. Plage Tahiti sold something that for me would turn out to be more important than clothes: Interview.

I'm not sure I understood who or what Andy Warhol was, beyond an artist I liked. I'm not sure I knew what Interview, his monthly magazine, was either, but I knew from the moment I saw it that it was the magazine for me, or for the me I wanted to be, as over-sized and party-coloured as, well, some of my dreams. I didn't yet know what that me was. (But I would soon know who that me wanted to be: Perry Ellis. Having endlessly drawn pictures of his clothes, copied from magazines, and replaced all the models' heads with Debbie Harry's, through one of my father's business connections I eventually got to go to his showroom and buy pieces from his new line of menswear, wholesale, with money saved from a summer of mowing lawns. Zoom ahead: years later, I would thrill to come across a picture of Warhol, snapped by Christopher Makos, on the back of a motor cycle commandeered by hunky Matt Norklin, the 'face' of Perry Ellis Men. Ellis' menswear 'samples' were sized to Norklin's build: how discombobulating it was to find their draping, disembodied hugeness sexy.) I memorized each page of that Plage Tahiti Interview.

Except for a subscription to Children's Highlights, the first magazine I subscribed to was Interview. Its arrival promised highlights of a different order. Many magazines proffer words and pictures and an elsewhere to get lost in. What exactly did Interview provide or produce that Vogue or the Vogue pattern book or WWD or DNR or Children's Highlights couldn't or didn't? Strangely, it offered authority, if only the authority of Andy's (or one of his doubles') desire, which was a way to learn to believe my own desires. For Interview, Andy's desire meant, mainly, pictures of men.

Combining the best parts of After Dark and GQ, adding noir burnishings (what might be called Andrew Crispo nuances), more skin, and electric access to the power nexus of New York's art, fashion, entertainment and society worlds, Interview in the early 1980s continued its negotiation of the confluence of style (post-disco) and homosexuality (pre-AIDS): what might be called, given the monthly 'Interman', a Baedecker of intermasculinity. Disseminating a fabulous amount of male flesh, Interview also valued - this may surprise some - words. Not content with crediting models with names (in itself an unusual event, especially with male models), it allowed them to speak. Top male model and Bruce-Weber-photographed Looking Good cover man Matt Collins discussed his burgeoning acting career. Shoe-master Manolo Blahnik chatted with dizzyingly hot Peter Hinwood ('Rocky' from the Rocky Horror Picture Show) - the only interview Hinwood ever gave before hiding away in his antique store - accompanied by shots of Hinwood flexing and beaming a knee-weakening smile. Maxwell Caulfield fresh from Joe Orton to Grease 2. Big Dolph Lundgren, stripped to next to nothing, straddled by girlfriend Grace Jones. Pull up to my bumper indeed.

The skin sheen of a magazine page, magazines' mix of promise and ephemerality in prose and pictures: every week, every month, something and someone new. Stacked by the bed, by the toilet, on the coffee table, cluttering the desk. The surprise of taut commentary on the newness. I am a promiscuous looker. I will look at anything. I spend a good part of every day looking, an activity that is a staple of my life, like breathing or walking or sleeping. What I enjoy looking at as much as anything are other humans, men especially. On the street, in the pages of a magazine - yes, please. I am not sure there is any equivalent for the dumb pleasure I receive watching men, although the same shimmer and glow are what I look for when I look at 'art'. The photograph is a necessary element of the magazine, but the photograph can remain private whereas the magazine is published, public; it circulates in the world, a thing purchased and taken home. Some men operate like this. A magazine enters the historical record in a way that the photograph qua photograph doesn't. A glance and then a hot someone's gone. Turn the page. Yes, but the page can be turned back. Magazines' ability to come closest to analogizing the proliferation of men that exist in daily life has long prepossessed me.

It is possible to fall in love with someone by seeing his picture in a magazine. I'm not sure what this says about love, magazines, photographs or those who fall in love in this way. In his hauntingly original film Finished (1997) filmmaker and documentary photographer William E. Jones meditates on his intense interest in a man he knew only through his appearance in ads, porn magazines and films. Imagine A. J. A. Symons' enthrallingly great 'experiment in biography' The Quest for Corvo (1934) as a film about a gay porn star and you'll have some idea of the intellectual and erotic milieu of Finished. Alan Lambert, the object of Jones' fascination, transforms into something else entirely when Jones finds out that Lambert, soon after Jones became aware of his existence, has committed suicide in a public square in Montreal, leaving behind a messianic letter-manifesto. In Finished Jones tracks Lambert's non-appearance in the non-sites that make up Los Angeles (long shots of the freeways, erotically desolate corners and alleys, blue skies, littorals) as counterpoint to his appearances in porn.

Two aspects of the film are of particular interest to me. First the way Jones' narrative voice-over, while relating the intersection of his own life with Lambert's hypnotic studly representation, supplies a brilliant critique of contemporary gay identity via pornography and its simultaneous idealization and commodification of the (white) male body. And yet his loving deliberation and thorough care with images - Jones uses the documentary potential of film to accomplish a personal archiving, even memorializing, of the photographic and filmic remains of Lambert's life - complicate matters almost to the point of contradicting his critique, suggesting the on-going trade between mind and body, word and image, life and death. Second, early in the film Jones focuses on a series of porn magazines opened to their centrefolds. Because of the way the magazines are discontinuously assembled, bodies are abstracted, different poses and body parts juxtaposed - I want to say inappropriately and obscenely, even though no cock or fucking is ever seen. In one spread a staple holds the entire magazine together: verso, hands and butt leaning on a white sink while what is out of the frame is blown; recto, a recumbent torso and reaching arm. Positions suggesting sex but not quite showing it. Idealization is a staple of fantasy and desire, and yet the staple, forlorn resonant signifier, barely holds anything together and what it does is bizarrely abstract - not unlike the little that holds the 'real' and the 'unreal' together, 'thing' and 'representation', 'experience' and 'fiction', 'word' and 'image'. Each stapled to the other, each, at times, transmuting into the other, something called the body or sex or, at the very least, its representation occurs. In Jones' careful notice of the still image can be discerned all visuality's pornography, pornography's transactions with the ineffabilities of the abstract, and mourning's skidding desire into philosophy.

Despite a history of gay men writing and thinking acutely about women (divas, ballerinas, movie stars, 'swans'), from Edwin Denby to Truman Capote to Wayne Koestenbaum, the equivalent - gay men writing about men (such as Boyd McDonald) - is a much less vaunted genre. Lacking a history of complex theorization of male-to-male desire in relation to the photograph, specifically to its accumulative quality, I am interested in thinking about how, why and what it means for certain gay men to collect and/or produce vast quantities of images, cataloguing visuality as if for their own magazine. Some might say such photomania sublimates desire and sex, but it is just as much the case that the photographs come as close as possible to proving some kind of erotic transaction occurred, no matter how momentary or anonymous. Magazines have an analogous and metaphorical relationship to such photo-cataloguing. Consider a synoptic trajectory from Wilhelm von Gloeden to Bob Mizer (of Athletic Model Guild: AMG) and Bruce of Los Angeles to Gary Lee Boas and Alair Gomes, the Brazilian photographer who snapped shots of buff beach boys from his Ipanema apartment window and other somewhat less surreptitious locations for over 30 years, only to be murdered by one of his distractions in 1992. What does it mean that all of these men were discomfited by the category of artist? What might the discomfit have to do with the scope of their enterprise and the limits of art (if that is what it is)?

Rosalind Krauss, interrogating matters relating to the photograph, oeuvre, art and the size of the archive, has written: 'There are other practices, other exhibits, in the archive that also test the applicability of the concept of oeuvre. One of these is the body of work that is too meagre for this notion; the other is the body that is too large. Can we imagine an oeuvre consisting of one work? The history of photography tries to do this with the single photographic effort produced by Auguste Salzmann, a lone volume of archaeological photographs (of great formal beauty), some portion of which are known to have been taken by his assistant. And, at the opposite extreme, can we imagine an oeuvre consisting of 10,000 works?'1 Gomes himself 'estimated' that he had made over 170,000 photos, making Krauss' example of a paltry 10,000 images seem positively dainty, as does the extent of the work of Mizer, Bruce of Los Angeles (both of whom published their own magazines soft sweet beginnings of gay porn) and Boas.

Where does my attempt to connect magazine reading, the proliferation of pages and photographs, and a particular type of desiring, leave me? In the realm of Warhol, whose aesthetic project seems, at times, to be a complete derangement of the institution, by his collecting and saving and producing non-stop? Beyond the realm of art?

The museum offers few solutions to the display of such scopophilic pleasure and vastness, but the magazine already circulates in quantity, relishing the promiscuity of the photograph. Available at a news-stand, the magazine's disposability, its antipathy towards art, certainly towards being art itself, may still hold a way to publish its promise.